While paying the requisite rhetorical homage to Marxism, historiography in Socialist Yugoslavia was really quite traditional: top-down, empirical and dominated by the political, especially in studies of the late 19th and 20th centuries. An approved "socialist" account of, say, interwar Yugoslavia was one that stuck to the storyline laid down by Tito's party.
Western trends such as the "new social history" of the 1960s and 1970s eventually reached Yugoslavia, but with a lag of some 10 to 20 years—thus coinciding with the much noisier rise of nationalist history. But quietly and productively, groups like Belgrade's Association for Social History have institutionalized the broad-minded and innovative currents in Serbian historiography. Browsing the Association's Website (it's largely in English) gives a good sense of some of the more interesting historical research being produced in Belgrade.
A look at daily life
The more recent trends in anthropologically informed history, with their valuable insights into meaning and experience in daily life, as well as their unfortunate tail-chasing post-modernist excesses, have hardly begun in Serbia.
The book under review is in part a cautious foray. Published jointly by the aforementioned Association and the Institute for History at the University of Graz, it brings together, in English, 17 papers presented by Serbian and Austrian scholars at a conference in Belgrade in October 1996. The pieces vary considerably in size and sophistication, and include broad overviews of the field, suggestive short essays and detailed microstudies.
To dispense with minor annoyances: the translations needed editing. Missing articles, stilted phrasing, close-but-no-cigar vocabulary (German influence on "the Austrian scientific scenery"): these are forgivable distractions, but the occasional sentence left me stumped. Also, "Balkans" in the title is somewhat misleading, since most of the essays concern the lands of ex-Yugoslavia and Serbia in particular.
The history of family and the zadruga
Several articles explore the history of family and patriarchy in Southeast Europe. These involve the famous zadruga, a type of joint family household that once captured the imagination of scholars at home and abroad. As Margaret Mead noted, "students of the zadruga had been able to invest it with a quasi-mystical or 'racial' quality." To some, it offered a vision of harmonious, pre-modern communal life; as late as 1960, a prominent Russian scholar argued, fancifully, that a Dalmatian zadruga had served as Thomas More's main model for Utopia. Even more influentially, romantic nationalists saw in the zadruga a unique and ancient expression of the South Slav (or Serbian, Croatian, etc) spirit.
The ideological interpretations have been debunked over the last fifty years, but the subject continues to attract attention. Graz is a center for this research, as summarized in Karl Kaser's essay. Hannes Grandits writes about the Habsburg Military Frontier, where complex households were considered militarily beneficial and were promoted by the authorities.
But when the Frontier was dissolved in 1881, the households broke up, as part of a more general crisis for the once privileged soldiers. There were both Orthodox and Catholic Bordermen, and the loss of their common social function added to the salience of their religious identity, virtually synonymous, of course, with their identity as Serbs and Croats. But national affiliation could be more fluid when based on language rather than faith, as Christian Pomitzer points out in his excellent piece on amenability and resistance to assimilation in two Slovene-speaking communities in Austria.
The role of women and sexuality
Several essays discuss the role of women and sexuality in traditional Balkan kinship systems. Especially fascinating is Predrag Šarčević's look at the gender-bending tobelija or mannfrau, a woman who renounces marriage and acquires a male name, haircut, clothes and (sometimes) privileges. The practice is found (even today) in Montenegro, Kosovo and northern Albania, among both Albanians and Serbs. The motives vary: a woman may be preventing a feud by preserving the honor of her rejected fiancé, or she may even have been raised as a boy in the absence of brothers.
Much of the most basic research on the history of women and gender in Serbia remains to be done, but a number of young scholars have begun this work. Here, Predrag Marković takes a tantalizingly brief look at "Sexuality in Belgrade in the 20th Century" (go to this essay). Particularly interesting is the puritanism of the Communist Party (what visitor to a nude beach or magazine stand in the 1970s or 1980s would have guessed it?), enforced well into the 1950s, and the suggestion that this attitude was rooted in the rural mountain background of so many of Tito's men.
They were reacting in part to the perceived bourgeois decadence of interwar Belgrade. Marković recounts that the great Serbian satirist Branislav Nušić "wrote in 1924 that after the war everything became shorter: skirts, hairstyles and marriage." The social life of these young women of the Belgrade bourgeoisie is brought to life in Tijana Čolak-Antić's interviews about the jours, the parties or receptions they held—an element of the era's self-conscious emulation of European, and especially French, culture and society.
Only one essay, perhaps the best one, concerns contemporary events. Slobodan Naumović examines the political use of national traditions in the early years of the Milošević regime. With telling and often overlooked examples, and within a sophisticated but not overbearing theoretical framework, Naumović shows how the ruling elite succeeded in manipulating a growing popular return to tradition, and in preventing its successful manipulation by rival political forces. His work is a valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship on contemporary Serbian nationalism.
Similar studies by domestic scholars are increasingly available in Western languages (such as The Road to War in Serbia, reviewed in CER, 18 September 2000). For too long, however, this was not the case. Between wars, sanctions and stigma, efforts like Graz's to collaborate with Belgrade have been few and far between. The dearth of cultural and scholarly contact has been a great loss, for Serbia, of course, but also for Western countries, where the perpetuation of ignorance and stereotypes about the Balkans has proved costly. People are filling the streets of Serbia as I write, in large part because they can finally envision an end to a decade of stifling cultural isolation. Western individuals and institutions now need to step up and do their share, approaching the Balkans less as their proverbial backyard—let alone as the wrong side of the tracks—and more as their neighbor, in this book's spirit of collaboration and dialogue.
Dušan Djordjevich, 2 October 2000
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3. Eg, Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima 19. i 20. veka, vol 2, Položaj žene kao merilo modernizacije [The position of women as a measure of modernization], ed Latinka Perović (Belgrade: Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, 1998). Includes summaries of the essays in English.